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Religious sisters on the frontline: How are they contributing towards the eradication of modern slavery?

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Online June Meeting
In-Person November Meeting

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Thousands of religious sisters are nowadays working – directly or indirectly – towards alleviating modern slavery and human trafficking. However, despite religious communities’ diligence in responding to issues of slavery and trafficking, there is a gap in the literature concerning faith actors and their organisations (Frame et al., 2019). In 2014, representatives of major global faiths – Anglicans, Jews, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Catholics, and Hindus – assembled to sign a Joint Declaration Against Modern Slavery. Pledging an end to modern slavery and human trafficking, they wish to ‘inspire spiritual and practical action by all global faiths and people of goodwill everywhere to eradicate modern slavery across the world’ (‘Signed Declaration of Religious Leaders Against Modern Slavery’, 2014).

The emergence of a global faith alliance against modern slavery and human trafficking has been certainly noted and investigated by some scholars. Pointing out a ‘turn to religion’ (Tomalin, 2018) in development studies, this burgeoning interest has remained focused on formal faith-based organisations, leaving aside the role and impact of local faith actors. Exploring how international anti-trafficking organisations responded to Covid-19, Tribeni et al. revealed a high prevalence from faith actors (Tribeni, Tomalin and Elyse Sworn, 2021). In receiving data from international and local faith-based organisations, they highlighted the lack of responses from local faith actors whose work is more informal and who may not self-identify as being related to modern slavery and human trafficking. They claimed that it was a ‘neglected area of research’ (Tribeni, Tomalin and Elyse Sworn, 2021, p. 24). Following this same line of concern, Frame et al., highlight that some projects implemented by local faith actors may not be classified as ‘anti-modern slavery and human trafficking’ despite having an impact on its prevention (Frame et al., 2019). Little is known about their typology of work, breadth, approaches to anti-trafficking, impact on their communities or, the role of faith in their work. Therefore, this lack of understanding and knowledge prevents policymakers, stakeholders, and funders from being aware of the extent of their impact.

Catholic Sisters are often on the ground serving and attending to the needy, however, since the Palermo Convention in 2000, they have raised their voices and progressively, they have been included in broader partnerships and dialogue. Bringing their particular expertise they have started building worldwide networks, alongside engaging with other secular and governmental stakeholders. In fact, in 2009, religious sisters around the world joined forces and established ‘Talitha Kum’, which became the largest network aiming to tackle human trafficking. Driven by their faith and spirituality, sisters are meant to treat every human being with the inherent dignity they possess. Their work is grounded on the belief that the dignity of the exploited can be restored through sororal and fraternal relationships. Their work can encompass accompaniment, provision of support, raising awareness, networking, promoting collaboration with governments, and education, among others.

Therefore, embedded in their communities, it is worth asking the following questions: What is their contribution to transformative change? What can we learn from their approach to trafficking and slavery? Is it distinctive from faith-based organisations or other secular stakeholders?

This paper aims to better understand the sisters’ contribution to the wider antislavery movement. For this, it will use both primary and secondary data. Firstly, it will provide a review of sisters’ work worldwide, reflecting the breadth and reach of consecrated life through both academic and non-academic literature. Secondly, it will use findings of 10 interviews undertaken by the researcher with some sisters Adoratrices. The sisters Adoratrices have been over 160 years caring for women coming out for exploitation, and therefore, delving into their work will permit us to better understand how through their faith and prayer, sisters do not surrender. They persevere, no matter the circumstances.

Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)

Thousands of religious sisters are currently working directly or indirectly to alleviate modern slavery and human trafficking. Despite being on the ground serving and attending to the needy, their voices and expertise have only recently been recognized by the international community. In response, religious sisters from around the world joined forces in 2009 and established 'Talitha Kum', which has since become the largest network aiming to tackle human trafficking. This paper examines the role of local faith actors in this global faith alliance against modern slavery, providing insights into the distinctive approaches of faith-based interventions in this arena. The study highlights the need for greater awareness and support for the often informal and overlooked efforts of faith actors in preventing trafficking and slavery, emphasizing the importance of their contributions to the fight against these global issues.